Monday, July 30, 2012

Marshall Crenshaw with The Bottle Rockets @ World Cafe Live, Philadelphia PA, July 25th, 2012

For my first evening of live music in Philadelphia (not counting a rather lonely evening at Ortlieb’s, watching a jazz guitarist solo over some r&b backing tracks for half an hour), I stuck with the tried and true—Marshall Crenshaw—and something new –The Bottle Rockets. I hadn’t heard of this band other than in the context of Marshall Crenshaw, who has been playing with them on and off for the past couple of years. It turns out they’ve been putting out albums for the last 20 years, pretty good ones according to Robert Christgau, although I did absolutely no research on them prior to the show. They played for about an hour, before returning later as Marshall Crenshaw’s backing band.

I associate the term “World CafĂ©” with the radio show, hosted by David Dye, which I’ve been listening to ever since I discovered WFUV about a week after moving to New York City in the summer of 1999. The venue of the same name is a place reminiscent of the now long-defunct Bottom Line in NYC, with a couple of rows of tables, one elevated a little , close to the bar, and a second cluster closer to the stage (which is where I was, very close to the sound engineer). Unlike the Bottom Line, there was also a big standing room area close to the stage. I was afraid at first that the standers would be in the way, but the stage was high enough for that not to be a problem. There were over 100 people, maybe as many as 150, at the show, and that was not quite enough to convey the impression of anything close to a sold-out show. I think all the sitting room was filled up, but there just weren’t enough folks up and dancing close to the stage and, toward the end of the show, it felt like the crowd was getting restless. I overheard at least one woman say that it was past her bedtime. This was clearly an audience full of Marshall Crenshaw fans, most of them well over the age of 40. The only clear Bottle Rockets fans were about a dozen or so younger folks—some college aged, a few around my age—who were clustered close to the stage, at least a few of whom seemed to vanish after the Bottle Rockets finished their opening set.

So, I didn’t know what to expect from the BRs. What I got was an hour’s worth of loud, raucous rock n’ roll. The crunching guitars were loud enough to drown out a lot of the singing (except when the bass player harmonized; I wish he’d done more of that), but it didn’t matter, because the band was great. Pretty much every song deployed a short, catchy riff, and every one had at least one guitar solo to absorb. Best of all was the drummer, who looked totally relaxed and was clearly having a great time. He held things together. They were tight and focused and clearly have been doing this for a long time. Some songs veered toward rockabilly, a few were slow. But most were uptempo and hard-rocking, and nothing bored me. They were a bit reminiscent of Joe Ely at his loudest. If you’ve heard Joe’s album Live at Liberty Lunch (1990), picture an hour’s worth of stuff like Joe’s “Are You Listening Lucky?” from that album. Song fragments I picked up included an opener called, I think, “Shame on Me,” “Indianapolis,” “Mountain to Climb,” “I Fell Down,” and a really great one called “Welfare Music.” Great stuff, and I’ll seek them out in the future.

Marshall Crenshaw, on the other hand, I know a thing or two about. The first time I saw him, he played as 1/3 of an acoustic trio, at NYC’s Rodeo Bar, but the next two times I saw him, in Brooklyn and in Northampton, he played alone on stage. He’s quite a guitar player, and I’m partial to his singing voice, but for years now I’ve craved seeing him with a rock band to back him up. And last night my craving got satisfied. I was not disappointed. The Bottle Rockets fit Marshall’s songs superbly. If anything, they sounded particularly good on the two newer songs, from the Jaggedland (2009) album: “Live and Learn” and “Stormy River.” They both featured some extended guitar solos that really worked. The ensemble playing was excellent throughout and have I mentioned that drummer they’ve got? He’s really something.

But it wasn’t the newer material that this crowd wanted to hear, it was the songs that made the man’s career, 30 years ago. “There She Goes Again” and “Cynical Girl” opened the set back-to-back, and “Mary Anne” came a few songs later, with “Calling Out for Love at Crying Time” and “Starless Summer Sky” in between. The final four songs of the set went from great to greatest: “Whenever You’re On My Mind,” “Something’s Gonna Happen,” “Someday Someway,” and, to end the set, “Better Back Off,” a song that Marshall described as “a happy song about anxiety.” But to me it’s simply a song about a man trying to get his lover to stop being so critical of herself. Why don’t more people write those kinds of lyrics? The same guy also wrote “What Do You Dream Of?” which came in the middle of the set, and is incredibly beautiful, one of my most favorite songs by anyone. The covers of Buddy Holly’s “Crying, Waiting, Hoping” and Richard Thompson’s “Valerie” soared, and the encore of “Not For Me” left me wanting more. Here’s hoping these two acts start teaming up more regularly. And here's a young man and his upbeat band getting famous in 1982.